Outstanding Okinawa- Four Perfect Days in the Tropics of Japan

Originally published in the Spring and Summer 2007 Issues of Saitama MemoRandom An English Quarterly Publication by The Saitama Prefectural Government, International Division, Saitama City, Urawa Ward, Japan

A. Introduction

Mensoure! (Welcome said in Okinawa’s indigenous language) My first indication that my wife and I were in for a uniquely Japanese travel experience was when I noticed how slow and low the Japan Airlines 747-400 jumbo jet was moving upon our decent into Okinawa’s Naha International Airport. I later learned that this is done due to the large U.S. military presence that occupies Okinawa. To avoid each other, military aircraft conduct operations around Okinawa at the higher altitudes while commercial aircraft fly at the lower altitudes.

Okinawa, the most southern prefecture of Japan’s modern-day Kyushu region, is approximately 2.5 hours away from Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport. Whereas most destinations in Japan there is the option of using the bullet train (shinkansen) when traveling long distances in Japan, however Okinawa’s isolation makes it more unique than the already unique attractions of Japan. In general, most tourists enter Okinawa thru Tokyo’s Haneda Airport when entering from mainland Japan.

B. History of Okinawa

Prior to 1372, The Ryukyu Kingdom was an independent entity with its capital on Okinawa Island. Around this time, China took interest in Okinawa and began requiring tribute payments from the Ryukyu Kingdom. This continued until 1609 when a Japanese prince captured the kingdom which forced the kingdom into a dual claim by Japan and China. During Japan’s Meiji Restoration in 1879, the dual claim was deemed unacceptable and Japan annexed the Ryukyus. Okinawa’s king sent representatives to Beijing asking for protection but to no avail. The US was brought into the mix for diplomatic settlement and President Ulysses S. Grant sided with Japan. The aftermath of this decision brought bloodshed and Okinawan academic subjects and the kingdom’s distinct language were forbidden.

In March 1945, a 90-day battle between the American-led Allied Forces and the Empire of Japan began making Okinawa one of the bloodiest battles of World War II’s Pacific theater known as “The Typhoon of Steel” (due to the masses of bombs dropped in Okinawa and changing the landscape). Approximately 150,000 lives were lost with half of them being Okinawan (mainly civilian), a quarter being mainland Japanese and the rest being American and other allied forces. Japan’s Imperial Navy made one last ditch effort to protect Okinawa by sending its naval centerpiece, the legendary battleship, Yamato. To the Japanese’s dismay the ship barely got out of the gates and was sunk in home waters on April 7, 1945. After the Japanese’s formal surrender on the American battleship, Missouri, in September of the same year; Okinawa was under the occupation of the US. As a possession of the US, people in Okinawa maintained their national language of Japanese, returned to their ancestral culture and recovered from the effects of the war. Several American military bases were established in Okinawa due to its key location in the Pacific region which brought employment opportunities to the local Okinawan economy. For 27 years, Okinawa remained a possession of the US and the Far East’s home of Americana from halfway around the world by giving the American GIs a taste of home such as the legendary diner and soft drink maker, A&W. The franchise exists in Okinawa today. Also, during the American occupation, vehicle traffic moved as it did in the US with cars moving on the right and the driver sitting on the left of the car. In mainland Japan it has always been the opposite. In 1972, Okinawa was returned to Japan with the understanding that the American bases would still be in Okinawa. Today, with 100% of its financial backing coming from the Japanese government, nearly 75% of the American military that is stationed in Japan is found in Okinawa. The issue of why and how many American service members stationed in Okinawa has always been a hot topic to debate.

Today, Okinawa has flourished as the once long, lost cousin of mainland Japan. Under control of Japan, Okinawa provides the “Land of the Rising Sun” with its most unique culture, Japan’s only tropical geography while at the same time being fully recognized as Japan’s most southern prefecture and part of the Kyushu Island region. As Japan’s mecca of tourism for mainland Japanese, Okinawa is the gem that has weathered the test of time maintaining a blend of Chinese, Japanese and American cultures.

C. Main Destination- Naha

The Kuriyushi Hotel is located off of Naha’s International Street (Kokusai Douri) and conveniently located near the Naha Central Bus Depot and Naha’s monorail system. The Kuriyushi chain has a total of three facilities throughout Okinawa with the other two facilities being luxury resorts with an oceanfront view. The downtown facility is a 3-star “Japanese Business Hotel” and has been the best hotel that I’ve stayed at in all of my travels throughout Japan. This hotel was available at a very reasonable price and provided a breakfast buffet, standard lodging on the spacious side with two twin-size beds, (I still haven’t figured out why married couples without children can’t sleep in the same bed while visiting a hotel in Japan), and TV with pay channel options. The top two floors are reserved for public bathing (sento) in addition to the shower in our room. Since the men’s bathing area was on the top floor, it was refreshing to bathe under the stars and tropic sea breeze with the rumble of Naha’s nightlife beneath me.

Since August 2003, Okinawa has joined the rest of mainland Japan with trains as mass transportation with their monorail system. This monorail starts at Naha Airport at the most southern end and goes north to the rebuilt Shuri Shine. The greater Naha area has an elaborate and colorful bus system that picks up where the monorail leaves off. For example, in Saitama Prefecture the main bus system has the green and white (Koukusai Kougyo) bus while in Naha, there were a dozen different buses ranging in colors and companies. One disappointing aspect of getting around Naha was not necessarily the long waits at bus stops which are to be expected but the “hustling” from the taxi drivers. Throughout our stay in Naha, we must have been approached half a dozen times by taxi drivers that were waiting by the bus terminal, driving by and approaching us as we waited at the bus stop offering to take us to where we wanted to go at a higher price that the bus claiming that the bus was too slow. This is another indication that Okinawa is a unique kind of place in Japan.

If your travel plans require venturing off to Okinawa’s north or one of the many scattered and unscathed isolated islands, there are ship and air services that specialize in these destinations. Also, if you have a Japanese driver’s license or an international driver’s license, renting a car is another good option. Unlike the metro Tokyo area, the roads in Okinawa are spacious with adequate parking available outside of Naha.

D. Must see places in Naha

International Street (Koukusai Douri) – The heartbeat of Naha, many restaurants (please see the “Must dine section” listed at the end of this article) as well as shopping centers and tourist gift shops (omiyagiya). The night life on International Street is always bustling with clubs, bars, and cheap eateries open until the early hours of the morning.

Shuri Shine- The equivalent of the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo, Shuri Shine was the home of the king of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It has the message posted at its entry, “Rejecting all weapons, the Ryukyuans welcomed all who come to their shores with heartfelt sincerity and the utmost courtesy.” The message sums up the Okinawan culture from long ago and how it has overcome its turbulent and troublesome history.

Tamaudon burial site- Near the Shuri Shrine, the Tamaudon burial site displays the ancient ritual of how the Okinawans prepared the deceased. Unlike the custom of cremating as it is done in mainland Japan, in olden times, the Okinawans prepared the deceased by leaving them in a special room where they basically became a skeleton. Afterwards, their remains were placed in large bowls then placed in tombs.

Near the burial site was a very picturesque place with a cobbled road leading to a main road down a curvy hill. In 2002, there was a NHK drama, Churasan which was filmed in this area.

Himeyuri no tou Museum- This was an all-girls school that later became a nursing school in the latter part of the Asian-Pacific War. Pictures were forbidden inside the museum but outside the museum the locals claim that in the pictures, ghost can be seen due to all of the lives lost at the school and in Okinawa during the 1945 “Battle of Okinawa”.

Peace Memorial Tower (Heiwakinendo)- This museum picked up where Himeyuri left off by displaying stone walls with the names of the Okinawan, Japanese, American, British, Korean and others who perished in the “Battle of Okinawa”. The area allotted for these stone walls was equivalent to the size of about three soccer fields. This place was a combination of beauty and sorrow.

Located next to the ocean with the Peace Memorial Tower, the Okinawan Prefecture Memorial Museum is on a hill overlooking the ocean and next to the Korean monument with windmills in the background. This was the only battle fought on Japanese soil forcing civilians as young as junior high school students into battle (boys were soldiers while girls were nurses).

Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters- During the “Battle of Okinawa”, the Imperial Japanese Navy was forced into an underground location where naval operations were conducted. As a veteran of the US Navy, I felt like I was onboard an American warship only underground.

E. Day-tripping from Naha (courtesy of Okinawa Bus tours)- (Their office is located near the Naha Central Bus Depot.)

Okinawa’s South China Sea- After originating from Naha’s Central Bus Depot area, our bus tour took us north to Okinawa’s South China Sea. Route 331 to Route 329 is a beach route which allows views of the ocean the entire time while driving by luxury hotel resorts thru the coastal towns of Urasoe (the original capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom) and Kadena (home of the US Air Force in Okinawa) among other coastal cities. The bus made two stops on the way where we were able to get out and take pictures of the beautiful ocean scenery in particular at Manzamou. I highly recommend stopping there. After our last stop, we ate a lunchbox (bento) and then continued on to the next place.

The Okinawa Ocean Expo Park and Aquarium, aka The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, is a four-story complex featuring a variety of displays. One can see huge whale sharks, living corrals, colorful tropical fish and a dolphin’s lagoon. The mascot of the aquarium is “Okichan”. This is a humorous and dynamic performance of a group of dolphins that rival “Shamu” of Sea World in San Diego, California. After taking a leisurely stroll on the white powder beach next to the crystal blue waters, we returned to the bus and continued on to the next place.

Situated near the Kadena’s US Air Force Base, the Southeast Botanical Gardens offers four different programs. These programs range from “Frolic & Fun” to “Quiet and Tranquil Walks” to “Bask in the Resort Atmosphere” and “Encounter the Power of Nature”. After experiencing the tropical vegetation up close, we returned to the bus where we continued on to the last stop before returning to Naha.

Located in Okinawa City, Plaza House Shopping Center is one of the oldest shopping malls in Okinawa since being established in 1954. The plaza offers many different shops ranging from an international grocery store, to a bookstore specializing in Western books and newspapers, and various restaurants. It literally felt like I was at a strip mall on Main Street, USA with spacious parking lots with car parking in a diagonal fashion.

F. Must dine places in Okinawa

Okinawans are arguably one of the healthiest people in the world. Experts suggest that the abundance of the homegrown sea vegetable, Mozuku coupled by the dieting philosophy, “Filling the stomach only to 80%” is the reason for the largest numbers of centenarians. Due to Okinawa’s history and slight disconnection from mainland Japan, Okinawa also provides some unique eateries ranging from local, fusion and international.

Billed as the All-American diner, A&W initially took off in California during the early 1900s as a root beer maker. A short time later, A&W became a full service enterprise selling burgers, hot dogs, sundaes in addition to root beer. After World War II, A&W expanded into Okinawa to satisfy the appetites of the young and hungry American GIs who were working on the various military instillations throughout Okinawa. Today, A&W has become a permanent fixture of Okinawa satisfying the locals with old-fashioned American-style hamburgers and frosty root beer floats.

On Naha’s International Street was a quaint and bustling Japanese pub (izakaya), Yunangii featuring Okinawan dishes. After a moderate wait and resorting to one of the low-tables in the front section on the restaurant, my wife and I sat snuggly on the floor and dined on items such as Goya (the bitter green vegetable that resembles a prickly cucumber); mozuku (the slippery seaweed that is served in ponzu sauce); soki soba (Okinawan soba that is a bit thicker than it’s Tokyo equivalent) that was used in a yakisoba dish; mimiga (pig’s ear), fuchanpuru ( various vegetables sauteed into a breadlike sticky but dry mixture), buta no kakuni (the tender part of a pig that is cut into cubes and simmered in a miso-based special sauce and when eaten melts in your mouth), Sanpincha (Okinawan tea that is a mix of green and jasmine teas). Instead of miso soup, we were served a clear soup. In general, Okinawan dishes have a vinegar-based flavor whereas Japanese dishes have a soy-based flavor. Of course a few bottles of Orion (The Okinawan draft beer) were consumed as well.

If anyone has eaten at a non-sushi Japanese restaurant in the US, I’m sure that they were dazzled with acrobatic knife tossing and amazed by watching a stack of onions releasing liquids like a volcano. These places like Benihana’s may be long on entertainment value but are often short on authentic Japanese cuisine which may get by with the average American wanting to take someone out for their birthday. After spending my first six months in the Kanto Plain region and not seeing one of these places, I came to the conclusion that this method of roasting seafood and vegetables on a large iron plate (teppan) was a myth and the style in the US was a watered-down version of the original that no longer existed. However, on Naha’s International Street, we enjoyed a delicious lunch at a Hawaiian-Japanese teppanyaki restaurant where the entertainment matched the excellent food. Now, I can take back every bad thing that I ever thought about the Japanese restaurants in my hometown.

Next, imagine a collision between the bakery chain found at most train stations in Saitama known as Little Mermaid and the American steakhouse chain, The Sizzler. Once the smoke settled and dust cleared, you would get Jimmy’s of Okinawa. This Okinawan chain features a bakery that prepares loaves of bread that are more than three slices per bag among other bakery items experienced when I visited Hawaii. There is also an American-style steakhouse buffet, department store selling Okinawan traditional clothes and an international grocery store featuring several products distributed by Costco Japan.

There is an Okinawan hamburger chain, Jef Drive-in Restaurant, which reminded me of what a local version of McDonald’s would be. Here, we were served unique dishes such as a Goya Burger (Okinawa’s bitter vegetable sauteed with eggs), Pork Sandwich (bears a slight resemblance of to a nikuman (a Chinese/Japanese dish of a biscuit/roll with meat inside) and an American-style BBQ sandwich), and deep-fried apple pies.

G. Special tidbits to know about Okinawa

The world’s largest number of centenarians (people 100 years of age and older) are found in Okinawa. Although the average Okinawan eats more meals in a day compared to Americans, the average Okinawan is healthier and lives a longer life. Some Japanese cuisine enthusiast in the US suggest that the abundant amounts of the ocean vegetable found in the seas surrounding Okinawa, Mozuku (a kind of seaweed considered a delicacy when seasoned with vinegar or ponzu sauce) is a source of longevity.

A dieting philosophy that recently made its way into mainstream American media that arguably came from Okinawa is “Filling the stomach to only 80%” (Hara Hachi Bun Me). Again, Japanese cuisine enthusiasts in the US suggest this method of eating is another reason for Okinawans’ longevity.

Orion Draft Beer is the only beer made in Okinawa and is a rare find in mainland Japan. Orion’s crisp and refreshing taste is a perfect fit for Okinawa’s tropical climate and casual lifestyle.

Something very beneficial to have known back in my single days in Japan is the Okinawan traditional dress for women. For example, if a Okinawan woman wears a flower on her left side, it means that she has a sweetheart (koibito), whereas if she wears the flower on the right side, it means that she is looking for a sweetheart. This is something that is similar to what you may have seen in Hawaii.

In mainland Japan, vehicle license plates have a hiragana character on their license plate. In Okinawa, American military personnel have a “Y” in the place of a hiragana character on their license plate. The reason for this allows easier access for their vehicles to enter the various American military bases and Japanese-funded military housing in Okinawa.

One souvenir found at stores on Naha’s International Street are large bottles of sake containing a snake. These items range in sizes and prices. One bottle was spotted with a JPY136,500 ($130.00) price tag.

H. Recap- How to get there, where to stay and getting around

Travel Agency- Cochan Travel

http://www.tour.ne.jp/ (Japanese only)

Airline- Japan Airlines

Lodging- The Kuriyushi Hotel located off of Naha’s International Street.

Transportation- Monorail, bus, taxi and Okinawa Bus Tours

Roundtrip airfare on Japan Airlines from Haneda to Naha, three nights at the Kuriyushi Hotel on International Street in Naha with a daily breakfast buffet went for reasonable price of (JPY34, 000) per person. An additional JPY5, 000 per person was spent on the bus tour courtesy of Okinawa Bus Tours which included a guided tour in Japanese, bento, passes into the aquarium and botanical gardens. Reservations for the bus tour were made on the morning of the tour but it is recommended that you book your bus tour in advance.

Daniel J. Stone and his wife, Mayuko, fled Saitama, Japan for one tropical Christmas in Okinawa.  This article can also be found on the Consulate General of Japan-Atlanta’s site at the http://www.atlanta.us.emb-japan.go.jp/jettravel9.htm

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